Devolution: Who’s Next

The eagle-eyed among LDV readers may have noticed last week good coverage for Nick Clegg’s trip to Cornwall on St Piran’s Day.  As well as the usual round of school and business visits, Nick took the opportunity to publish a joint article on Cornish devolution with local Lib Dem Council Leader, Cllr Jeremy Rowe.  For some reason the local papers, which published it, haven’t put it online, so here’s a link to it on my own website.

For the first time, Jeremy and Nick spell out how Cornwall could use the Lib Dems’ proposed Devolution Enabling Act to form a Cornish Assembly, with powers over housing, education, health and public transport.  They write:

“Cornwall could alter right-to-buy, keeping back vital homes for 29,000 people waiting on the local housing list.  We could change planning law and Council Tax so buying up second homes in Cornwall comes with a greater price.  And Cornwall could blaze a trail, integrating local NHS services and funding with the social care which people rely on all year round – that alone could save millions of pounds and improve thousands of lives.”

It’s great to see the political concept of devolution brought alive with real examples of how an Assembly could vary “one size fits all” rules made in London, but which just don’t suit the economy and environment elsewhere.

Cornwall’s great advantage is that there is a measure of political consensus – with the notable exception of the Tories! – about what they want.  The Devolution Enabling Act, if we get it on the statute book after May, will let them take it.

What is urgently needed is clear agreement – preferably across party, but certainly within the Lib Dems – on what other areas of the country want.  I have never lived in Yorkshire, so don’t presume to prescribe what local people should want there, but surely it’s time to decide whether the Yorkshire Devolution Movement’s call for a Yorkshire Assembly is the best way to go or whether smaller city-based institutions, perhaps based on the existing City Deal areas, are preferred.  The Coalition has made strides in devolving responsibility to Sheffield and Leeds, but Whitehall relies on the lack of consensus about where to devolve power as an excuse to retain it in London.

It’s unfair, of course, for me to pick out Yorkshire.  I do so as a compliment – because the prospect of progress there seems clearer than almost anywhere else outside Cornwall.  Every Lib Dem in every part of England should be thinking about how they would want a Devolution Enabling Act to be used in their area.  To campaign for devolution, we must campaign on what Lib Dems locally would do with it.  To do that, each area must decide!

Since the core purpose is to make a reality of subsidiarity (decisions taken as close as possible to the people they affect) this bottom-up initiative is essential.  Far from attracting snorts of derision about more government, the coverage in Cornwall was almost all positive (see BBC and Western Morning News) with only Cornish Nationalists raging that they wanted both a Cornish Assembly and a continuing Cornwall-wide Council!

Paul Tyler is Co-chair of the Parliamentary Party Committee on Constitutional and Political Reform and Co-author of A Devolution Dialogue, published by Centreforum this year.

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